Early Breeding Failure in Birds Due to Environmental Toxins: A Potentially Powerful but Hidden Effect of Contamination


Toxin emissions and legacies are major global issues affecting many species through, among other effects, endocrine disruption and reproductive impairment. Assessment of toxin risk to wildlife focuses mostly on offspring-related metrics, while the lack of breeding initiation or early breeding failure has received less attention. We tested whether exposure to methyl mercury (MeHg) results in early breeding failure and reduced number of breeding birds using observational and experimental data. We used 21 years of numbers of breeding pairs of colonially breeding wild Great Egrets (Ardea alba) in response to annual and geographical variation upon exposure to environmental MeHg. After controlling for food availability, we found a strong negative association between MeHg exposure and the number of breeding Great Egrets. We report reductions of textgreater50% in breeding numbers under exposure levels otherwise associated with textless20% reduction in post-egg-laying breeding success. Experimental exposure of White Ibises (Eudocimus albus) to MeHg also caused early breeding failure and a ∼20% reduction in breeding numbers at environmentally relevant exposures. The demographic consequences of reductions in breeding pairs are additive to known and typically studied impairments in postlaying reproductive success. Net demographic effects of exposure to endocrine disruptors may often be strongly underestimated if early breeding failure is not measured.

Environmental Science & Technology